Oxford Personal Statement Podcast Awards

Jane, 17, spent two days crafting her personal statement on her university application form this year.

She was applying for a place at Cambridge University to study history. It took four drafts for her to be happy enough to send it off.

She might as well have spared herself the bother.

Cambridge's director of admissions, Geoff Parks, has admitted that tutors at his university do not assign any marks to the personal statement – an essay students write on why they chose the subject they are applying for and why they are suited to it.

Parks said students now receive so much help – from their teachers or from websites that offer to write the statements – that universities cannot tell whether a student has written any of it.

He said: "With the profusion of companies and websites offering to help applicants' personal statements for a fee, no admissions tutor believes [personal statements] to be the sole work of the applicant any more.

"We certainly don't assign any marks to personal statements. I have been told by students after they have been admitted that their schools write the personal statements. References from teachers do not count for much either, Parks added. Teachers have stopped writing anything interesting or controversial now that students can demand to see what they have written.

Cambridge judges students on their grades and predicted grades instead, Parks said.

Jane, who does not want to give her full name, said: "If tutors are worried that the statements have been written by other people, they can grill students hard at the interview. They should be able to differentiate between those who wrote their personal statements with genuine passion, and those who simply got someone else to do it for them."

A spokesman for Cambridge University said: "Cambridge admissions tutors and subject interviewers do indeed give careful consideration to the personal statements of applicants for undergraduate admission.

"While the potential for coaching or third party involvement makes it difficult to attribute a 'score' to a personal statement, we do regard it as providing valuable background information.

"Cambridge probably interviews more applicants than any other UK university, and we necessarily use personal statements to inform the interview process because a purely academic record tells us nothing about the personality we are engaging with and how well they will adapt to college life."

Roderick Smith, director of admissions at Birmingham University, said his university had refused to consider "several dozen" students last year after it found out they had paid an essay mill to write their personal statements for them.

And Smith said a teacher at an independent school had told him: "Of course we help our students with their personal statements, their parents are paying £7,000 a term!"

Admissions tutors may ignore the personal statements of students applying for engineering and science subjects, Smith said.

"Where there are more places than applicants, students are likely to get an offer whatever their personal statement may or may not say," he said.

"We look at whether someone has the requisite academic achievements; then, if there are too many students for the number of places, we look at their personal statements."

Tim Westlake, director of admissions at Manchester University, said its tutors took personal statements seriously. "But we wonder whether we should choose students to interview on their qualifications, and then discuss their personal statement with them at interviews."

Oxford University's head of admissions, Mike Nicholson, said the personal statement was "a good way to distinguish the truly gifted, original and inspired". He said: "We find it a very helpful way to identify what they are doing above and beyond their A-level studies."

Ucas, the university admissions service, is considering whether students should write a separate personal statement for each of the five university courses they apply for, rather than write a generic personal statement for all of them, as they do at present.

26th October 2017

This guide is taken from the Know How Library, a tool on the Unifrog platform. Not sure whether to take the ACT or the SAT? Or how to give the perfect Oxbridge practice interview? The Know How Library is an easily searchable library of 100s of expert guides for both students and teachers, covering every aspect of the progression process. It is included as standard for Unifrog partner schools.

  1. Start Early

The extra level of preparation that an Oxbridge application requires, combined with the October deadline, means that pupils should try to start planning their Personal Statement in Year 12.

The first draft of the Personal Statement should be completed by the end of summer holiday between Year 12 and 13, which means any extra reading or work experience that a student may wish to include in it must be completed before this time.

Tip: if a student is unsure on the particular course they wish to study, encourage them to start planning a more general Personal Statement, or even two separate ones for two different subjects. By writing about their enthusiasm and their experiences, they may find that their decision becomes obvious.

  1. Focus on the academic

Prove your academic strength in your subject with examples of books you’ve read around your subject, an EPQ you’ve written, a prize you’ve won, lectures you’ve attended, documentaries you’ve watched or even podcasts you’ve listened to.

Admissions decisions at Oxford and Cambridge are solely based on academic ability and potential. Whereas a regular personal statement might be split 75/25 into academic content and content focussed on extracurricular activities, this should be more like an 90/10 split for an Oxbridge personal statement.

Students should therefore try to use the limited word count to only discuss experiences which have helped expand their understanding or passion for their subject.

Here are some questions for to reflect on:

  • How have my experiences expanded my enthusiasm for my subject?
  • What skills/knowledge have I gained from my experiences?
  • How will this make me a better student in the future?


Instead of: “I am interested in molecular biology”

Try: “My interest in molecular biology led me to read X”

  1. Set yourself up for an interview

All successful Oxbridge candidates are interviewed as part of the admissions process, and interviewers often draw on things mentioned in the Personal Statement.

To help put you in control of the interview as much as possible, you can leave ‘hooks’ for the interviewer which directs them towards subjects you will be able to expand upon.

If an applicant writes: “I was fascinated by the similarities between Ovid’s Amores and contemporary love poetry” they can expect to be asked what it was in particular that they found fascinating, and they should think of some specific examples in advance to bring up in the interview.

This is one reason why it is crucial that students remain honest in their Personal Statement. Students should never claim to have read a book that they haven’t (even if they plan to read it after submitting their UCAS form). Likewise, they should not pretend to have an interest in a certain subject just because they think this will sound impressive.

  1. Show that you can be thoughtful

Oxbridge admissions tutors are looking for thoughtful and perceptive students who are curious about their chosen subject.

An applicant who can recite a list of books they’ve read is much less impressive than an applicant who has read two or three books but has thought deeply about them. Encourage your students to talk through the process that led them to discover a certain historical interpretation or scientific paper in order to demonstrate a thoughtful approach to their studies.

Instead of: “I read X then X then…”

Try: “Upon learning about X at school I continued my studies by reading X. I was particularly interested by the chapter on X which led me to further research X…”

Another way of proving you can be a thoughtful is by drawing links between topics, books, articles, films, lectures, etc. This will demonstrate that you are not just capable of consuming information, but processing and applying it - a crucial skill that admissions tutors will look for.

Questions to consider:

  • Did two different theorists/directors/writers/commentators interpret a concept/story/event differently?
  • Is there a theme that runs through a set of concepts/books you’ve read?
  • Did you disagree with an opinion presented at a lecture?

Tip: the quantity and breadth of material a student has consumed is less important than the way they have thought about them.

  1. Try to be different…

In 2015, Oxford University received around 18,300 undergraduate applications for roughly 3,200 places. With the vast majority of these applicants holding top grades, it can be very difficult to stand out from the crowd.

This is where a student’s ability to think thoughtfully and originally comes in. In their Personal Statement students should think about how the subject for which they are applying relates to their other studies, the world around them and even their personal experiences.

For example, almost every Classics student out there will know the plot of Medea but how many of them will be able to demonstrate that it’s since been stolen by the screenwriters of Eastenders? Did campaigning for the most recent election remind you of a piece of propaganda from the First World War?

It’s important for the candidate to remember that the interviewers have made a career out of their chosen subject; they will genuinely be interested to have a conversation with you if you can bring an interesting or original thought to your Personal Statement and interview.

  1. …but don’t overdo it

Don’t try to be original for the sake of it. And do go overboard with the thesaurus - concentrate on being clear rather than impressive.


A note on the SAQ               

If a student has submitted an application to Cambridge, they will receive an email within a couple of days after the submission containing a link to the SAQ form.

This is an additional form to the UCAS one, requiring you to fill out extra personal details and your complete education history, including the A Level (or IB or equivalent) topics you have covered, and the raw marks of any exams you have already sat as part of your current courses.

There is also a space to add an additional 1,200 character ‘mini personal statement’. A student can use this to outline specific aspects of the Cambridge course which appeal to them and anything else which they may not have been able to include in their main UCAS personal statement.

Advise your students that they need not agonise over drafting and redrafting an SAQ; it is simply a supplement to the main body of the Personal Statement, in case they have more they wish to tell the admissions tutors.

Applicants to Oxford will not have to complete an SAQ, so they may wish to include the elements of the course that appeal to them in their main Personal Statement. However, it’s important to remind pupils that they need the application to be relevant to all five of the universities they are applying to, so they should not mention Oxford (or any other specific university details) by name.

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